McConnell, Zona Lillian (1884-1977)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 1/03/2023
  • Essay 22601
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Multi-instrumentalist musician Zona Lillian McConnell was a music teacher in King and Snohomish counties for decades, nurturing the talents of generations of students. She and her husband Dennis moved to the West Coast from the Midwest in 1912 and settled first in Portland and then Seattle, where she began offering music lessons, performing concerts, and playing violin on radio programs. Around 1920 she and four other female players were recruited as a quintet to back an ambitious stage production called The Sweetest Girl. In 1926 she formed an all-female sextet, the Banjoettes, and began touring regionally. By 1930 the band was in Hollywood, had secured a manager, and had morphed into Las Senoritas, a nine-piece show band that worked steadily, including in Prohibition-era speakeasies and various halls in Alaska. After adopting two children, the McConnells moved to Madrona Beach on Camano Island, where Zona opened the Madrona Music School and recruited and led numerous youth bands out of nearby Stanwood. Until retiring in the early 1970s, she continued performing concerts in towns throughout the Puget Sound region.

Early Heartbreak

Zona Lillian Nelson was born to Sivert "Sam" Nelson and Anna Nelson in Iowa on June 17, 1884. The family later moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Sam Nelson was a carpenter and Master railroad bridge engineer, as well as a fiddler in a local band. "She told me that her dad played the violin and that he could see that she was interested in music, so he bought her first violin when she was pretty young," recalled Zona's granddaughter Joan McConnell. "My understanding is that on his time off he was a healer. And they would go by horse and buggy around to the different towns and he would do the laying on of the hands and then she would play her violin. She would get up in the back of the buggy and stand up and play her violin for everybody while he did his thing [laughter]" (Joan McConnell interview with author). 

On November 30, 1904, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she married Dennis Edward “Mac” McConnell (1884-1956), who, like Zona’s father, worked for the railroad. Over subsequent years the couple experienced the heartbreak of having pregnancies end in miscarriage, and in 1908, Zona gave birth to baby Lucille, who lived only eighteen months before succumbing to illness. "She couldn’t get over her grief," Joan McConnell said. "She said she put her violin away … she could not play … and that’s when her and her husband decided that they needed a change. So, they headed west" (Joan McConnell interview).

Change of Scenery

It is thought that the couple traveled by train while Dennis was inspecting tracks. "She told me that they camped in a tent along the way, and she learned how to fire a gun and kill rattlesnakes. They made their way out and ended up in Portland," said Joan McConnell (interview). After arriving, the couple opened McConnells Confectionary and ice cream shop around 1914. Zona found the will to take up her violin again, and studied classical technique with Miss Nettie Owens at the N. W. Normal School of Music and Art, and then with E. O. Spitzner. She got involved with Portland’s classical music community and performed at public recitals. She dreamed of joining a philharmonic orchestra, and even auditioned a time or two, but was disappointed after not making the cut.

The couple resettled in Seattle around 1918 and bought a house on Queen Anne Hill at 3007 11th Avenue N. Dennis got a job with the Pacific Coast Railroad Company, which hauled coal from the mines at Black Diamond to steamships on the Seattle waterfront. Working from his office at the Colman Dock Building, he served as a foreman. At times his work took him to Alaska, where he inspected company docks at Sitka and Juneau.

The Sweetest Girl

On August 14, 1918, Zona McConnell paid her first union dues and fees to join Seattle’s American Federation of Musicians Local No. 76. She was a natural player who, in addition to the violin, had taken up the banjo. She would become fluent in other instruments including accordion, piano, saxophone, drums, and eventually guitar. This thoroughly modern woman wore men’s clothing when she chose to, and owned and drove her own automobile. A few early promotional photos show her gazing fondly at her beloved violin, or fingering her banjo. Around April 1920, she began running ads in The Seattle Times that stated: "WANTED – Violin pupils; special attention given beginners. Room 220 Yale Building" – a place at 3rd Avenue and Union Street where numerous musicians and instructors had studios. 

That same year she recruited other women – described in one newspaper account as "university girls" – and formed a jazzy quintet featuring herself on banjo, plus two saxophonists, a violinist, and a pianist (North Beach Tribune). In 1920 her band was hired as the backing band for a stage production called The Sweetest Girl, produced by I. M. Fahey & Co. The show was ballyhooed as being: "A Marvelous, Bewitching, Entrancing GIRLIE SHOW – Introducing Artists of the Higher Class – Comedians And Dancers Unrivaled In All The World – A New and Enthusiastic Musical Girlie Romance – The Classy Girlie Show – 10 Artists – Regular Girls – 20 Beautiful Bewildering Dazzling Gowns – Marvelous Music, The Greatest Comedy, Enticingly Beautiful Girls In This New Musical Romance – The One Big Success of 1920" (The Sweetest Girl program). It gave McConnell's band its first taste of life on the road. 

The Girls Club

By February 1923 McConnell had a downtown studio in the Peoples Bank Building, where she taught violin, banjo, and piano. In May 1923 she participated in a concert at Jensen and Von Herberg’s Mission Theater, performing "Variations of Old-Time Melodies" on her violin, banjo, and mandolin. In February 1925, she began performing live on KHQ radio in Seattle. By August 1925 she again was running advertisements in The Seattle Times noting that she was offering musical instruction – in particular "PIANO jazz, 13 lessons, note or ear," from the Waterman Piano School located in the Yale Building. By November she was offering lessons in violin, banjo, ukulele, and Hawaiian steel guitar.

In 1927, 50 female members of AFM Local No. 76, including McConnell, founded a new auxiliary – the Girls Club – for support and fellowship purposes. Around that time a new trend emerged: all-female jazz combos. In Seattle those would include Frances and her Girl Friends, Alberta and her Melody Queens, the Rhythmettes, and McConnell's band, the Banjoettes. Things were not always easy for these pioneers. One musician would recall how "male musicians would sit in the crowd and harass them even though they all belonged to the musician’s union. At that time men felt that only males should form bands ... The girls were always well received at the dances and eventually the hazing would stop, only to be repeated at the next job" (Tanner). Meanwhile, the union’s only woman board member, Ida Dillon, began booking five all-female musical trios to work the Alaska Steamship Company’s cruise ship circuit on five steamers based in Seattle. 

Hitting the Road

The Banjoettes were a sextet that featured four banjos, a drummer, and one player who alternated between the clarinet, saxophone, and ukulele, depending on the type of song. The ensemble became proficient at playing a range of musical styles, including classical, pop, jazz, and eventually songs with a Spanish/Mexican flair. They developed a stage act that spotlighted solo performances, duos, and trios, along with numbers that included singing, dancing, and comedy bits. After creating their act locally, they began a few years of touring around the region and eventually down the coast. Making their way to Hollywood, the women turned heads, and their music and showmanship grabbed attention. By 1930 a couple of music business pros, Stanley and Henry Synder, had offered their management services. For the following few years the band was booked as Stanley’s Hollywood Las Senoritas and promoted as "A Snappy Girls Jazz Orchestra" and "The Film Capitol’s Jazziest Girl Orchestra." Over time the troupe grew to nine members – including Seattle’s KFOA radio star, accordionist "Dainty Miss" Alberta Bailey from the Melody Queens: 

  1. Zona McConnell (leader, vocals, violin, banjo, sax)
  2. Alberta Bailey (accordion)
  3. Frances Krauland (sax, clarinet)
  4. Laurnetta Nelson (violin, sax, clarinet)
  5. Carmel Teed (piano, vocals, dancer)
  6. Mae Powell (drums, vocals, dancer)
  7. Lillian Walker (dancer)
  8. Patsy Patterson (dancer)
  9. Irene McKenzie (dancer)

Back home in Washington, Las Senoritas played a notable show at a dance pavilion on the Long Beach Peninsula on June 25, 1930. They were pitted in a Battle of the Bands competition against a well-established Black all-male hot-jazz group, the Ebony Serenaders. Ilwaco’s North Beach Tribune gave the event good advance publicity, but there seems to have been no follow-up reportage, so the winner has been lost to history. The Guardian newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, did mention that the Serenaders were working their way up the coast to summer gigs in Alaska.

North To Alaska

In March 1931, perhaps inspired by the Ebony Serenaders, Las Senoritas, which by now included accordionist Lillian Barthelmy, traveled by steamship to Ketchikan, where steady work awaited them. From the minute Stanley’s Hollywood Girl Band landed, the local newspapers fawned over the women with almost daily coverage of their activities both on and off the stage. The first press account said: "A new and breezy note was brought to Ketchikan" upon their arrival. After they made their Ketchikan debut, the Daily Alaska Empire raved: "On The Stage With Dancing, Singing and Red Hot Music – Don’t pass up the chance to hear Miss Alberta Bailey and Miss Bartholomew [sic] on their piano Accordions. This alone is easily worth the price of admission. The entire company are talented musicians and will stage a DANCE while here if arrangements can be made" ("Girls' Band Attracted ..."). Arrangements were made, and the band played a dance for the townsfolk. Then, after wowing Ketchikan crowds for a couple of nights, the troupe "chartered the Taku, Second, Capt. R. H. Kapper, a 40-horsepower gas boat, 52 feet long, for the voyage from Ketchikan to Juneau" (Daily Alaska Empire, March 19, 1931).

Advance publicity in Juneau promised that they’d be bringing "Dancing, Singing and Red Hot Music." They opened with a bang at Juneau’s premier movie palace, the Coliseum Theatre, which had been designed for Mr. W. D. Gross by the Seattle-based architect R. H. Rowe and furnished by Seattle’s B. F. Shearer, Inc. Upon its opening in 1924, The Moving Picture World magazine predicted, "Gross will have one of the finest houses on the coast. It will cost in the neighborhood of $85,000 and will seat 1,000. The theatre will be planned somewhat like the Liberty Theatre of Seattle, with a ramp going up to the mezzanine floor where it divides, circling to the balcony" ("Gross Will Attract ...").  

After their performance on March 18, 1931, a reporter with the Daily Alaska Empire filed a report that included interesting quotes from the band’s drummer, Mae Powell. "At a restaurant luncheon after the show they chatted about miners — they want to see some — the snow and the peaceful aspects of Juneau, capital city and rich gold camp of Alaska. 'We like the North,' Powell enthused. 'Alaska is not without gratifying surprises in some respects. We were prepared for its beautiful scenery, which is widely heralded, but not for the peaceful, orderly ways of all its people. Perhaps, motion pictures had led us to expect at least some displays of lawlessness — carousing and drinking places, for instance. Why at a table in many cafes in Los Angeles, I wouldn’t dare to move a foot for fear of kicking over a bottle of Scotch; here it is a delight to entertain no such apprehensions'" (Daily Alaska Empire, March 19, 1931).

In a place where women were relatively few and far between, the musicians’ femininity was appreciated. As were their musical skills. "Even if these maids could not play a note. Their comely looks and winning ways are enough to bring old timers running from the hills and to make jaded young blades about town lift their eyebrows in surprised admiration. But the girls can make music. That is their business" (Daily Alaska Empire, March 21, 1931). 

Not all of Las Senoritas’ Juneau gigs were glamorous. They performed between bouts of boxing matches, at an Elks Club dance and fundraiser for a baseball team, at a dance party for the Kayhi basketball team at Pepe’s Café, the Biennial Ball for Alaska’s Tenth Territorial Legislature, a Junior Prom Spring Dance, a bash at the Moose Hall, and a series of dances at the A. B. Hall. They were a hit, so much so that the Daily Alaska Empire imagined that they would never leave town. "Rejoice," one news article trumpeted, "'The Girls' Band is here to stay ... in Juneau Permanently" ("Girls Engaged to Play ..."). 

Back Home With Family

Once back in Seattle, McConnell became active with the Ladies Relief Society’s Orphan Home, assisting and encouraging numerous friends to adopt kids. In 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, she spotted a bedraggled 8-year-old girl busking on a street corner. Singing songs and dancing, little Lorraine was performing for coins while her alcoholic father rested nearby. Learning that they lived in a tarpaper shack in Maple Valley, the McConnells asked if they could take the girl into their home as family. They would eventually adopt her, and Lorraine McConnell (1923-1977) would have her own career in show business.

Meanwhile, Zona regrouped her band as Zona McConnell and her Serenaders. The band contracted with the Bert Levey Circuit of Vaudeville Theaters, headquartered in Hollywood. In time they returned to the Northwest. Perhaps this close-to-home strategy was due in part to the fact that in 1937 the McConnells adopted a newborn baby, who they named Edward Samuel McConnell (d. 2015), and who would go on to take dancing lessons with Helen H. Shaffer in Seattle, as well as piano and accordion lessons with his mother. He did his share of live performances over the years.

Lorraine McConnell would go on to graduate from Queen Anne High School and the Carolyn Leonetti modeling school, and also studied drama at the University of Washington, where she appeared in plays at the campus Showboat Theater. As a skilled accordionist, she was hired by Joe Stancato to serve as the National Supervisor of Training for his Stancato School of Accordion at 7405 Greenwood Avenue, and then traveled as its West Coast representative. In time she would meet and marry Dave Ballard, a grandson of Seattle pioneer Captain William Rankin Ballard (1847–1929). Dave Ballard was the classical music director at Los Angeles’ KGFS radio, while Lorraine worked as a jazz dancer and scat singer. Both were actors at the Pasadena Playhouse, and got bit parts in Hollywood movies. In the early 1950s Lorraine Ballard began spinning records as a disc jockey for local dances. After they moved back to Seattle, Dave gained some renown for a long stint as a radio personality. Starting as a DJ at KING-AM, he moved on to KTIX in 1958, but became best known for his Reflections program that started on KIRO radio in 1960 and featured soft music backing his readings of original poetry. Moving later over to KIXI, his show came to be syndicated on 26 network stations.

Snohomish County Living

In the mid-1940s Dennis McConnell retired from the railroad, and he and Zona had planned ahead by buying an old logging camp site with a cabin on Camano Island’s Madrona Beach in 1933. Around 1944 they had a new house built there, and the family made the move from Seattle. In no time, Zona had founded her home-based Madrona Music School and become active in that community and in the nearby town of Stanwood.

In 1951 she self-published a 23-lesson tutorial folio titled Lessons in Scales and Chords, which she dedicated to her son. That was followed in 1956 with another, First Approach to the Accordion, comprised of eight brief original compositions, which was published in New York. These were useful as she tutored her many pupils in the arts of playing and performance. She formed several kiddie bands – including the Stanwood Accordion Band, the Rhythm Band, and the Zona McConnell Accordion Orchestra – and through the years many community events were held at Stanwood’s circa 1936 City Hall building, which, in addition to its jail cells and city council chambers, also boasted a ballroom, orchestra pit, and stage. It was here that for many years McConnell offered free public music recitals by her students.

McConnell and/or her youth groups played Seattle shows at the Northwestern School of Music, the YWCA’s Tuesday Luncheon Club, the Alpha Delta Sorority, and even at KING-AM radio. Elsewhere they performed at the Fraternity Hall in Auburn, the Lutheran Brotherhood Hall in Bremerton, the Snohomish County Sportsmen’s Association, the Stillaguamish Grange Hall, the Sons of Norway Hall in Blaine, at the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs convention at Everett’s Normanna Hall, the Northwestern Festival at the College of Puget Sound, the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, plus Stanwood’s Sons of Norway Hall, Jay-Cees Wives Club, Masonic Temple, and for the crew of Camano Fire District No. 1. Wrote the Stanwood newspaper: "Mrs. McConnell is well known and universally loved in this district as one of our most accomplished music teachers ... and has probably produced more juvenile musicians than any other teacher who ever lived and taught in this locality" (The Twin City News).

Throughout her life, McConnell was an independent thinker with can-do gumption, a loving heart, and a generous soul. In addition to playing music, and teaching music (up until about 1973), she also had an interest in spiritualism, and an innate sense of DIY proto feminism. "She was such a wise woman," recalled her granddaughter. "She was a big influence for me because she was so ahead of her time. I admired her for it. I recognized that when I was a teenager. She was totally fearless. She was so fun to hang out with. She told me a lot of great stories" (Joan McConnell interview). McConnell continued driving until May 1977 when, at age 93, her car was struck by another vehicle. She never quite recovered, and her final months were spent at the Woodland Convalescent Center in Woodland. She died on November 24, 1977, and was laid to rest at Stanwood’s Anderson Cemetery.


Joan McConnell interview with author Peter Blecha, October 13, 1922, transcript in author's possession; Vicki Tanner, The Girls In The Band 1925-1935, self-published booklet, 2003, p. 6; The Sweetest Girl, I. M. Fahey & Co. program, Seattle’s Western Show Print, 1920. pp. 1-4; "Gross Will Attract Floating Population," The Moving Picture World, June 2, 1923; "Ebony Serenaders Here At Winter Garden," Eugene Guardian, April 29, 1930, p. 4; "New Dance Feature Is ‘Battle of Bands,'" North Beach Tribune, June 20, 1930, p. 1; "Alaska Steamship Co. Hires 15 Girls," Musicland magazine, December 25, 1930, p. 19; "Girls’ Band Attracted By Lights On Hill – Pretty Musicians Expected Some Lawlessness on Last Frontier," Daily Alaska Empire, March 19, 1931, newspaper clipping, Zona McConnell’s scrapbook; "Senoritas Play For Dance At Elks Tonight," Daily Alaska Empire, March 21, 1931, newspaper clipping, Zona McConnell’s scrapbook; "Girls Engaged To Play Dances in A. B. Hall," Daily Alaska Empire, undated, newspaper clipping, Zona McConnell’s scrapbook; "Recital Given In Honor Of Departed Friend," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 20, 1937, p. 3; "Flanked by Their Son and Daughter, Mr. and Mrs. D. E. McConnell Come Smiling Through as They Chart a Continued Course on the Second Half of the Century,” The Twin City News, December 2, 1954, p. 1; Edward S. McConnell, letter to AFM-76 informing of Zona McConnell's death, January 26, 1978, courtesy AFM-76-493; Zona Lillian McConnell, Lessons in Scales and Chords (Stanwood: ZLM, 1951); Zona Lillian McConnell, First Approach to the Accordion (New York: Pietro Deiro Publications, 1956); History Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Beginnings: Ballard Post Office opens on August 22, 1889," (by Greg Lange), (accessed October 31, 2022); History Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle’s 'all girl' jazz group Las Senoritas faces off against New York’s the Ebony Serenaders in an epic Battle of the Bands on June 25, 1930" (by Peter Blecha), (accessed October 20, 2022).


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